On this day in 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany arrives in Tangiers to declare his support for the sultan of Morocco, provoking the anger of France and Britain in what will become known as the First Moroccan Crisis, a foreshadowing of the greater conflict between Europe’s great nations still to come, the First World War.
The kaiser did not have any substantive interest in Morocco; neither did the German government. The central purpose of his appearance was to disrupt the Anglo-French Entente, formed in April 1904. The Entente Cordiale, as it was known, was originally intended not as an alliance against Germany but as a settlement of long-standing imperialist rivalries between Britain and France in North Africa. By its terms, Britain could pursue its interests in Egypt, while France was free to expand westward from Algeria into Morocco, the last territory that remained independent in the region. France subsequently signed an agreement with Spain dividing Morocco into spheres of influence, with France receiving the greater part.
Angered by its exclusion from the decisions made about North Africa, Germany believed that the Anglo-French Entente went a long way towards the creation of a new diplomatic balance in Europe itself. An international convention had guaranteed the independence of Morocco in 1880; Germany now saw that the friendship between two of Europe’s most powerful nations threatened to override this, and thus also posed a challenge to Germany’s own influence in Europe and the world.
With much pomp and circumstance, Wilhelm—whose ship had faced gale-force winds on its passage to North Africa—arrived in Tangiers on March 31, 1905. In what would be known as the open door speech, he announced that he looked upon the sultan of Morocco as the ruler of a free and independent empire subject to no foreign control and that he himself would always negotiate with the sultan. He also stated that he expected Germany to have advantages in trade and commerce with Morocco equal to that of other countries. Wilhelm’s sensational appearance marked an aggressive departure from the German foreign policy under the legendary Otto von Bismarck, who as chancellor had united the German empire in 1871 and had advocated conciliatory gestures towards France and other European rivals as a key part of German foreign policy.
Although Germany had intended aggressive action in Morocco to place a wedge between France and Britain, it in fact had the opposite effect, strengthening the bond between the two countries due to their mutual suspicion of Germany. What began as mere friendship turned, after the First Moroccan Crisis, into a type of informal military alliance, including conversations between the British and French governments and military staffs and later, a mutual defense agreement with a third country, Russia.
In the wake of the kaiser’s appearance, an international conference convened in Algeciras, Spain, in January 1906 to conclude an agreement about Morocco. The resulting convention awarded France a controlling interest in Moroccan affairs, but guaranteed equality of trade and economic freedom for every nation and limited any colonial action by any nation without consultation with the other signatories. A Second Moroccan Crisis flared in April 1911, when the French pushed troops into the country, claiming to be defending the sultan against riots that had erupted in Fez but actually violating the terms of the Algeciras convention. In response, Germany sent its own warship, the Panther, which arrived in the port of Agadir on May 21, intensifying the enmity between the two nations and, by extension, their allies.
Slightly more than two years before the outbreak of World War I, then, the two Moroccan crises left no doubt that the traditional power balance in Europe had shifted into large blocs of power, with Germany relatively isolated on one side—enjoying only lukewarm support from Austria-Hungary and Italy—and Britain, France, and Russia on the other.